Big Deal, Controversial Topics, Ethics, Social Role

The Worst Week of Mary-Claire King’s Life: An Amazing Tale from an Amazing Scientist

Mary-Claire King is one of the most important biomedical researchers of the last half century. King is best known for her discovery of the BRCA gene family, now used as a vital diagnostic tool for breast cancer risk. The BRCA gene saga is pivotal in understanding the role of intellectual property in biomedicine. Shortly after King’s discovery, Myriad Genetics, a company out of the University of Utah, sequenced the genes and filed patents for them. Myriad locked up use of these genes for years (until the Supreme Court invalidated the patents), slowing research and preventing countless women from gaining access to tests that used the genes. If you’re a proponent of the public owning the results of public-funded research, the BRCA gene story is a textbook case, one that makes clear that access to the papers written about the results is small potatoes compared with access to the results themselves.

King is a remarkable figure, leading the fight against the patenting of genes, as well as applying genetic techniques to identify victims of human rights abuses. She has led a fascinating life, filled with some of the most amazing stories, one of which you’ll see in the short video below. It starts off with the worst week of her life, as she struggled to get to Washington to secure the grant that would lead to the BRCA discoveries. From there, it eventually runs into a completely unexpected punchline that continues to blow my mind.

For more about King, see also this in depth interview conducted by her colleague Evan Eichler. Great stuff.

About David Crotty

I am the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. I oversee journal policy and contribute to strategy across OUP’s journals program, drive technological innovation, serve as an information officer, and manage a suite of research society-owned journals. I was previously an Executive Editor with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, creating and editing new science books and journals, and was the Editor in Chief for Cold Spring Harbor Protocols. I received my Ph.D. in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing. I have been elected to the STM Association Board and serve on the interim Board of Directors for CHOR Inc., a not-for-profit public-private partnership to increase public access to research.


5 thoughts on “The Worst Week of Mary-Claire King’s Life: An Amazing Tale from an Amazing Scientist

  1. Thank you for posting this, David. The moth story is rich with the dilemmas of a modern woman in the sandwich generation feeling the pulls of parent, child, and career. The extended interview shows a compassionate, brilliant, and brave person unfazed by military coups, corporate patents, and competitive pressure. Such a wonderful role model. And, as she says at the end of the long interview, there is more work to do…

    Posted by Carol Anne Meyer | Feb 13, 2016, 1:13 pm
  2. I too would like to thank you for posting this. I am a Chilean and I live in Chile. I came back from the US in August 1973. I was 14 then and my father had been posted in the Chilean Embassy in Washington D.C. Hearing Mary-Claire’s testimony on the period before and after the coup is very important to me. I agree with the Carol Anne – Mary-Claire is a wonderful role model. Thank you again. We must never forget where we come from in order to see more clearly where we must go.

    Posted by Vivienne Bachelet (@V_Bachelet) | Feb 13, 2016, 9:27 pm


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